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How bad is triclosan? New research rouses more debate

New research linking triclosan to impaired muscle function, including dramatic effects on the heart, puts this harsh antibacterial ingredient back in the limelight and raises more questions about chemical dose and exposure. 

Hello, triclosan, we meet again.

Despite studies linking the common antibacterial chemical to sex hormone and fetal development disruption, triclosan continues to pop up in many everyday personal care products, particularly hand sanitizers and liquid soaps. New research once again puts this ingredient in the limelight, reporting that it also could have negative effects on muscle function.

The research from the University of California and the University of Colorado linked triclosan to significantly impaired muscle function, finding that it had a “dramatic” effect on the heart, according to the researchers. The most startling finding was that mice exposed to the chemical had a 25 percent reduction in heart function within 20 minutes of triclosan exposure.

The great triclosan debate continues

It’s no surprise, really, that the American Cleaning Institute (ACI)—which works with various conventional manufacturers of antibacterial cleaning products—fought back against the research, arguing that the dosage used was too high for the test subjects (mice and fish) to offer an accurate snapshot of the chemical’s potential effects on the body. Meanwhile, the scientists who conducted the study say that the dosages were the same as those found in personal care products.

The debate will continue—and manufacturers will continue to use this ingredient in the absence of tighter regulations. But this seems to be some of the more compelling triclosan research we’ve seen, which will hopefully urge more companies to pay attention to the potential risks.

Beyond that, the study brought me back to a recent conversation I had with Janet Nudelman, policy director of the Breast Cancer Fund, about a topic that transcends triclosan and is becoming increasingly relevant in all conversations about conventional personal care products: chemical exposure and risk.

“The emergence of scientific studies that point to low-dose exposure to chemicals have been the most impactful because they’ve really turn on its head the old chemical industry adage that the dose makes the poison,” Nudelman said in the interview about the Safe Chemicals Act.

Why even low-dose exposure matters 

Let’s say ACI is right (stay with me) and the dosage used skewed this study’s results.

I'd argue that it's not relevant. Why? We are beginning to analyze dose and risks. Chemical manufacturers have long tried to argue that only high-dose exposure to a potentially hazardous chemical leads to a significant “risk.”  (This PDF spells out the differences between risk and hazard.)  But as Nudelman mentioned, the research and—perhaps more importantly—common sense are countering this once-common rationale.

Today, we understand that exposure isn’t just about one product that you use once a day. It’s about the accumulation of the dozens of products, containing hundreds of chemicals (even at small doses) that you use regularly in your homes, on your children and many times without even realizing it.

The good news is that just like chemicals can build over time and have an impact, so can the research. And this study takes us one step closer to making a case for manufacturers to say goodbye to triclosan. 

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